"Newspapers are dying" is the refrain in conversations about media health. And true, in the last few years some traditional newspapers have disappeared (RockyMountainNews), gone to online-only editions (SeattlePost-Intelligencer) or started offering home delivery only a few days a week (DetroitFreePress).
"Lately, when I finish an interview, most subjects have a question of their own: What's going to happen at The New York Times?"
So says Times media desk reporter David Carr in "Page One: Inside The New York Times," a new documentary hitting theaters.
At 91 minutes, "Page One" is less a profile of the paper and more an exploration of what's happening to the newspaper business – using the Gray Lady (as the Times is sometimes called) as a lens.
Director Andrew Rossi (an associate producer on the 2004 documentary "Control Room," about Al-Jazeera's coverage of the invasion of Iraq) includes comments from nearly 40 media and news publishing experts, but it's a few guys (and yes, they're still mostly white males) who keep the film spinning.
There's BruceHeadlam, media desk editor for the Times, who necessarily juggles the balls of deadline, accuracy, ethics and more.
And BillKeller, now an op-ed columnist for the Times, but who was the paper's executive editor during documentary filming.
And BrianStelter, a young media desk reporter hired by the Times after he had already made his mark using social media.
At the heart of "Page One" is Carr, the media desk reporter who covers media change while his own position at media's ground zero is shifting.
He's smart, combative when necessary, funny and notably detached from the doomsday scenario others are predicting.
Rossi wanders the Times building (itself part of a 2009 sale-leaseback to get the Times Co. more cash when it needed it), dropping in on conversations among reporters and attending "page one" meetings, in which editors pitch stories to senior editorial staff as part of the process for determining page one (and other) content.
This peek behind the media curtain is made all the more fascinating by the events under discussion – events you know and remember – like Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks coverage and controversy.
That media moment alone could command a full-length documentary. Here it's especially relevant because the most obvious comparison for the controversy is the release, by the Times in 1971, of the Pentagon Papers (a top-secret report about U.S. involvement in Vietnam), which had been given to the paper secretly by DanielEllsberg.
Keller parses the parallel perfectly by pointing out that Assange didn't need the Times; Ellsberg did. The Internet accounts for the difference.
A few other Times disasters in recent memory are discussed, like Judith Miller's reporting on the WMD in Iraq and Jason Blair's plagiarism and deception. These segments appear mainly in the context of determining the role of the Times in how everyone else gets their news.
In other words, "the Times effect." In a perceived and even demonstrable sense, "the news" starts at the Times (and other media outlets of similar weight) and filters down through other channels. If the Times gets it wrong, then everyone else might as well. And if the Times didn't exist, then ...
Then what? What does the blowhard blogger write when staffed foreign bureaus no longer exist to report from on the ground? What does the citizenry miss if the Fourth Estate, as traditionally understood, crumbles?
Watching "Page One" and thinking about it later, the ethic – and ethics – of the people profiled linger. Headlam, Carr, Keller, Stelter and others – these appear to be people you want providing you information. They are committed to excellence, to getting things right, to getting information that matters.
No, they're not perfect. The people in the Times building have made mistakes and will make them again.
But understand this: They don't go off half-cocked. They don't write without editors. Information doesn't shuffle from source to reader without passing through several gates.
Take Carr's coverage of Sam Zell, who took over the Tribune Co. (The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, WGN America and more) in early 2008 and led it to bankruptcy about a year later.
In the documentary, as Carr researched Zell's leadership, appointees and organizational culture, an unflattering picture emerged.
Carr goes round and round with Tribune PR folks and seems miffed not only by their understandable stonewalling but also by the facts themselves (e.g., sex talk in the workplace and misbehavior among senior leadership).
And yet – Carr asks the Tribune, in his reporting process, for the "counter-narrative." In other words, if his reporting is all wrong, then provide the evidence that counters what the current evidence suggests.
Carr's interested in getting it right.
"Page One" is engaging and illuminating. Viewing it will prod anyone who's ever read a news story into contemplating the very nature of their news.
CliffVaughn is managing editor and media producer for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: R for language including some sexual references.
Director: Andrew Rossi
Writers: Kate Novak and Andrew Rossi
Cast: Bruce Headlam, David Carr, Brian Stelter, Bill Keller